Khalil Islam, now 72 and stooped over but still dapper in his purple embroidered kufi and impeccably clipped silver beard, used to go to the Audubon Ballroom on Broadway and 166th Street to see the big dance bands. Those were “my dope and jazz days,” says Khalil, who never guessed his life would change forever on February 21, 1965, the cold winter afternoon Malcolm X was assassinated at the Audubon.
Forty-two years later, the events of that day remain a hotly debated topic in Harlem—even among those far from being born in 1965. This much is agreed upon: The mood at the Audubon was tense. Malcolm, erstwhile “Detroit Red” hustler turned racial firebrand, politician of the street and the cosmos, supreme logician of the African-American dilemma, had broken with his mentor, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam (a.k.a. the Black Muslims) and self-proclaimed Messenger of Allah. Having called Elijah a “religious faker” in his famous autobiography and denounced the Messenger’s alleged sexual dalliances, Malcolm was under counterattack, derided as “a Judas,” “the chief hypocrite.”
“Only those who wish to be led to hell, or to their doom, will follow Malcolm,” wrote the then–Louis X, later known as Louis Farrakhan. Malcolm’s house in Queens had been firebombed, Molotov cocktails thrown through the windows as his children slept. Seemingly resigned to his fate, Malcolm, with an unsettling smile, told CBS’s Mike Wallace during an interview, “Oh yes, I probably am a dead man already.”
The start of Malcolm’s Audubon speech is etched into the landscape of American political violence like Governor John Connally’s wife telling John Kennedy “Mr. President, you can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you” and John Wilkes Booth’s shouting “Sic semper tyrannis” as he jumped from Lincoln’s balcony. As Malcolm began speaking, a disturbance broke out in the crowd.
“Get your hand out of my pocket,” someone screamed. “Hold it, hold it, don’t get excited. Let’s cool it, brothers,” Malcolm said.
That was when a man with a double-barrel shotgun rose from the front row of folding chairs and fired. The slugs shattered Malcolm’s chest, pitching him backward as two more gunmen rushed the stage shooting pistols. A few minutes later, after his bloody body was wheeled across Broadway to Columbia Presbyterian hospital, Malcolm X was dead.
Ten days later, Khalil Islam—then known as Thomas 15X Johnson and a ranking lieutenant at Elijah Muhammad’s Temple No. 7 on 116th Street and Lenox Avenue—was arrested, charged with the murder of the man Ossie Davis eulogized as “our shining Black Prince.”
“Yeah,” Khalil says now, with matter-of-fact irony. “They gave me the star role: the man with the shotgun. The mastermind.”
The big problem with this, Khalil has maintained since his arrest, is that he was nowhere near the Audubon Ballroom on February 21, 1965. He was in his apartment, across from the Bronx Zoo, where he and his children could look out the window and see the giraffes crane their necks above the tree line.
“I spent most of the day in bed with this rheumatoid-arthritis condition. They said I shot Malcolm, then jumped out the ladies’-room window and ran down the stairs. The truth is, I could hardly walk … I only found out about the shooting when my next-door neighbor came over shouting, ‘They got Big Red.’”
This alibi meant little at Khalil’s murder trial. Nor did it matter that the man with the shotgun was described as dark-skinned with a full beard while Khalil is light-skinned and was beardless at the time. More galling was when the 22-year-old Talmadge Hayer suddenly confessed his role in the murder while swearing that Khalil and Norman 3X Butler, another Temple No. 7 lieutenant, had nothing to do with it. Hayer said Khalil and Butler hadn’t even been at the Audubon that night. This didn’t help Khalil either.
Convicted of first-degree murder in early 1966, Khalil spent the next 22 years in various New York State maximum-security prisons, a good portion of that time way down in the hole where a prisoner sees natural light for an hour a day.
“I was innocent, yet there I was, behind those walls,” says Khalil in his hoarse, quiet voice, adding that he decided to finally tell his story because “it took me until now to really understand it, to think it through, and that’s important because I always felt knowing what happened would be the key to who I really was.”
One thing Khalil knows for sure is, back in 1965, if you needed someone to pin the Malcolm X murder rap on, Thomas 15X Johnson sure fit the bill. “I was a reactor,” Khalil says. “We all were in the Fruit of Islam, which was nothing but a paramilitary unit. If someone pulled off a Muslim’s bow tie, or ripped up the Muhammad Speaks newspaper, we reacted. Tell us to go kick a guy’s spleen out, we were on him with all four feet. We were martial artists, but we weren’t training to become black belts: We were training to kill black belts. You didn’t want to see us coming.
“I had this other case pending, with a gun involved. I was out on bail when Malcolm was killed. That buried me, how violent I supposedly was. But really, everyone just wanted it swept under the rug. It was only a year after the Harlem riots. Things were so inflamed. The cops figured one Muslim was as good as another. The Nation didn’t help me. They probably sat down, had a cup of coffee, and made the decision to throw me to the wolves. That protected everyone else.
“They picked the right guy, because even if I felt I was going berserk watching myself get framed, they knew I would never talk, never give anyone up. That was my mentality: straight up, what I thought was a righteous Muslim. The fact was, I was just the patsy. The perfect patsy.”